Shade – same song, third verse

This topic inevitably comes up every summer. In fact, I just talked to a producer about it yesterday. It can also be a very polarizing subject. Some people go battle mad when they see animals in the sun with no shade. Other people barely blink.

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you fall on, we all know how hot it gets here in July and August. In fact, the forecast for the week after typing this is over 90 with potential triple digits at the end of the week. I will focus on livestock in this article, but the basic principle applies to all livestock. We all see cattle while driving, some have shade and some don’t. They all look warm but the ones with no shade seem to be warmer and yes I do get calls sometimes from someone concerned about livestock. But before getting to the heart of the article, I want to touch on a few points.

As an extension officer, my job is to educate and assist growers by providing them with factual, unbiased, research-based information so they can make the best possible choices for their respective operations. This information can be in the form of a meeting, field day, conference, one-on-one conversation, or even newsletters and articles. However, regardless of the form of delivery, as an agent I am expected to keep opinion out of my recommendations. That said, I usually end up with a “Well, what should I do?” or “If these were your cows, what would you do?” or even a straight, “What’s your opinion?”. Those of you who know me know that at this time I will give you my opinion, good or bad. Sometimes I probably give you more opinion than you want! My wife says I like to talk. So, for this particular article, I will present the facts that I have gathered and then I will give you my opinion. Remember, this will be my opinion. Take it for what you think it’s worth and move on. I know some will agree and some will not. That’s why it’s an opinion.

The Facts: We all know that there are breed and coat color effects that play a role in the topic of heat stress in cattle. I won’t dwell on that in this article because the majority of producers in Sampson County deal with black-skinned Bos Taurus cattle. There is not much research on livestock and grayling. I found a few studies and several “opinion” articles from university teachers and even more from simple producers. Most studies have been performed either with feedlot cattle, dairy cattle, or with cows on endophyte-infected fescue pastures. Many of the brood cow studies were from South American countries.

The results tend to be contradictory. Some studies have shown a shadow effect and some have not. Heat stress can raise body temperature, but not in all cases. One study showed no increase or decrease in growth compared to cattle in a similar environment without shade. Feedlot research indicates that shade can be beneficial early on until cattle acclimatize to summer temperatures. And cattle have the ability to acclimatize to their summer environment. Another feedlot study showed that cattle with 80% artificial shade had improved gain and feed conversion compared to those without shade. A study in Uruguay showed that cattle with shade spent less time grazing than those without shade, but weight gain was similar. Another study I found indicated that there was no difference in grazing time between shaded and unshaded cattle.

In studies where shade made a difference, the type of shade, natural or artificial, also had an impact in some cases. An LSU pasture study involving heifers that had either 80% artificial shade or natural shade demonstrated no difference in animal performance. While a study at the University of Arkansas comparing permanent tin roof shade to trees and no shade indicated that in early summer there was a difference, but across the study there was no difference between the treatments. Another trial from the University of Arkansas found that cattle in artificial shade had a 20% increase in average daily gain and those in tree shade had a 60% increase over cattle without shadow. A University of Kentucky study showed a shadow advantage in weight gain for yearling cows, calves and steers. A University of Florida study found an increased conception rate in shaded cows and the University of Missouri demonstrated an increase in overall pregnancy rate.

So you tell me. Do livestock need shade? Based on research, I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. Some research shows an increase in performance with shadow and some does not. I found articles that said it wasn’t just the heat but the combination of heat and humidity that made the difference. The higher the humidity, the more cattle tended to show signs of heat stress. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any articles showing an increase in heat-attributed deaths. Several also commented that a limited amount of shade could be worse for livestock as they all tend to huddle together in the shade and eliminate any advantage due to proximity to each other.

Here is my value of two cents. I think they need shade. From the research I’ve found, there seem to be benefits to providing shade, although there aren’t any absolute downsides to no shade. I know that when I am outside I take full advantage of the shade when I can and try not to go out if there is no shade. As a producer, I know that a comfortable animal is a more productive animal. I want my cattle to earn, or design, or even maintain; so if providing shade will help them, they will get shade. Moreover, it is difficult for me to look at my cows and see them “suffering”. They may be able to acclimate to the temperatures, but they still feel warm to me. And finally, we need to look at the animal welfare perspective of the public.

Increasingly, people are concerned about the welfare of the animals they eat before they become food. As I said at the beginning of this article, I get calls about welfare, not only about the heat, but about animals in snow and ice and even about them standing in too much mud. . The public watches what we do and watches us more. Even though the research emphatically stated, “No. Cattle don’t need shade!” Convince the soccer mum or retiree who has moved in next door that the cow standing there panting, tongue hanging out, drool dripping from both sides of her mouth, c well, maybe an impossible task!

Paul Gonzalez is an agricultural extension agent, specializing in livestock, at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Center in Sampson County.

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